University fires up UK higher education with 'ignite'

The university that embraced distance learning in the UK more than 25 years ago has become one of the nation’s first to launch a fully flexible, dual learning approach to its courses from September, which will see students take more control over their approach to learning with the option of face-to-face learning, remote learning and flexible accommodation packages in response to personal needs and the evolving COVID-19 situation.

The University of Leicester’s ignite model marks what the institution is calling a ‘new era of inclusive learning’ in higher education, as new research reveals the lack of clarity over UK courses from September is causing many students to reconsider commencing their courses this autumn due to the related anxiety impacting on their mental health.

In independent research spanning 2,006 UK students and their parents, undertaken by the University in May 2020, over a third (41 per cent) of students are now considering deferring their start date to 2021 because of uncertainties about how degree courses will run and fears over safety. More than half of those considering deferring (51 per cent) said they are concerned about the standard of the education they will receive from an online-only course, hampering the ability to socialise, make friends and enjoy the university experience.

Almost half (46 per cent) of the respondents said they had received no communication from the institutions they have applied to about course formats in the wake of COVID-19, with 56 per cent saying they are anxious about the current situation. A further third (33 per cent) said the uncertainty and fears about safety had in turn started to impact on their mental health.

When questioned about what would change their mind, almost two thirds of students and parents (63 per cent) said having certainty about course delivery would be critical, while 50 per cent said face-to-face contact as well as distance learning is key. For 45 per cent of respondents, having the ability to reduce associated costs like accommodation when not in use is also important. 

In response to the findings the University of Leicester’s ignite dual learning package will blend face-to-face and distance learning, allowing smaller group learning sessions, lectures or seminars to run face-to-face as well as online, ensuring staff and student safety. Larger lectures will be delivered live online as well as recorded, giving students access as and when they need it.

Students wishing to stay on campus may access a variety of flexible accommodation packages, such as weekly bookings in addition to full-term accommodation options. Accommodation contract lengths have also been extended to give students the flexibility they need during this period of uncertainty. Students will have access to all campus facilities and student support services, including weekly check-ins on progress and wellbeing, as well as access to all academics either face-to-face or online. 

Ignite will also ensure that the University student community, regardless of nationality or location, has access to this new dual-learning model. All international students will still be able to take advantage of the University’s pre-sessional English language programmes, and students who successfully complete modules on online English language programmes will be able to start without the need to take a further test. These pre-sessional courses play a critical role in building linguistic competence and confidence, equipping learners with core academic skills as well as gently introducing them to the United Kingdom, the University and its wider community.

University of Leicester Vice-Chancellor Nishan Canagarajah said: “Having launched one of the UK’s first distance learning programmes more than 25 years ago, we are proud to be able to give our students the control to shape their university experience like never before with ignite.

“Over half the students we surveyed said they would prefer a dual learning model over a traditional classroom approach and we’ve listened and responded to this. Ignite allows students to switch easily between a physical university experience and a virtual one, with the option to adapt at any time to accommodate changes to individual circumstances. While we are pleased that a majority of the students we surveyed are planning to continue with education this autumn, it is imperative that they receive the education outcomes they expect as well as the support they deserve.

“Those starting university in September will no doubt undergo a truly unique experience and with ignite. Students can rest assured our flexible on-campus and online living and learning will continue to meet the needs of a changing world whilst delivering the very highest standards in education.

“The University of Leicester is diverse in its make-up and united in ambition. We create, share and apply knowledge to make transformative change with all communities, wherever they are. We are Citizens of Change, and ignite enables us to continue offering a supportive, creative, inclusive environment for our student community. The University of Leicester community is a remarkably resilient one, and I would like to pay tribute to our exceptional staff and students for coming together in this crisis to help shape this new, innovative format of learning.”

Harriet Virely, a 22-year-old University of Leicester medical student, from Burton-on-Trent, said: “I'm currently in my clinical phase of medical school, which as you can imagine, has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic. However, the blended learning approach that Leicester has adopted means my studies can continue in the safest and most productive way.

“One of the massive benefits of moving to a slightly more online based learning model has been that I've been able to juggle my university work with paid employment.

“I feel really lucky because Leicester already has a huge online presence, so the shift to going online really has been that much easier. This shift online has been followed by our supportive community, and my course group and year has got much closer through Instagram stories, Facebook chats and even email chains.”